March 16, 2010

Cars in the cross hairs


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John Patriquin/ Staff Photographer: Tuesday, July 8, 2008. Buses on busy Congress st. in Portland for transit story.

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This is a a view of what Commercial Street could look like if a trolley and other changes are made to cut down on single-occupancy vehicles in the city - backing into parking spots, more bike lanes and bus lanes. The view is from Franklin Street looking south west towards the Casco Bay bridge. The Bell Buoy Park is on the left. This was created by Nelxon/Nygaard Consulting Associations, Boston, which have been hired to help come up with a plan for the Peninsula Transit Study Committee.

Staff Writer

Cars could become second-class citizens on Portland's peninsula if a set of proposals being developed by a transportation committee is approved.

The Peninsula Transit Study Committee is floating dozens of ideas as it seeks ways to reduce the number of single-occupancy vehicles in the city and promote alternative forms of transportation.

Under the group's plan, buses would pick up passengers in the middle of the street, rather than at the curb, so routes could be completed faster and more runs offered. Drivers would have to wait while bus riders climb aboard.

On Commercial Street, drivers would be required to back into parking spaces so it would be safer for bicyclists when the cars pull out.

Some parking meter rates would go up, and for the first time, peninsula residents would have to pay to park on neighborhood streets, with the proceeds funding neighborhood improvements to things such as sidewalks.

The ideas, which will be reviewed for the public at 6:30 p.m. tonight at Merrill Auditorium, are designed to cut traffic while encouraging housing and commercial growth within the state's largest urban area, where 35,000 people come to work every weekday.

The transit committee includes Planning Board officials, residents and representatives of large employers. It will take its recommendations to the City Council for action in the fall. Committee members say high energy costs are providing more traction for their ideas.

''This is not an answer to a traffic problem. This is an answer to a cost-of-living problem,'' said Kevin Donoghue, a city councilor who heads the transit committee.

The Portland Community Chamber has not taken a stand on the plan. But on Tuesday, some business owners and commuters appeared lukewarm to the parking proposals -- especially one that would raise parking meter rates.

Christopher O'Neil, the Portland Community Chamber's liaison to city hall, called the transit study intriguing but said the city's business community is not ready to comment on specifics.

He said the chamber generally opposes any meter increases, but supports parking policies that would free up spaces for customers of Portland businesses.

''This is high-minded urban planning that will come as a shock to some people,'' O'Neil said.

Chuck Schaeffer, co-owner of Maine Professional Opticians at 102 Exchange St., said raising rates might free up spaces, but it would also eliminate his customers, who already complain about having to use a garage next door.

''I think they should eliminate the meters,'' he said.

The plan grew out of a 2005 traffic study that called for a six-lane Franklin Arterial to relieve traffic congestion around Interstate 295's exit and entrance ramps. That proposal triggered howls of protest from city residents, who called for a traffic plan that discouraged more cars in the city.

Armed with $75,000 in grant and city funding, the transit committee this year hired traffic consultants Nelson/Nygaard of Boston to come up with traffic improvements that promoted alternatives to the automobile.

Many of the ideas have been endorsed by the transit committee, which also based its proposal on comments made by the public at a forum in February.

The transit committee is proposing big changes to the way parking rates are now set. Donoghue, who does not own a car, said the idea is to set meter rates according to demand.

Rates in high-traffic areas, such as Exchange Street, would be higher than on Pearl Street, where an empty meter is much easier to find.

The transit committee also recommends that more meters be added to neighborhoods, such as Bayside, where free parking is available during the day.

The transit committee further proposes abolishing the requirement that new housing units include two parking spots each, a practice Donoghue said encourages the ownership of cars and adds to the cost of the housing.

Looking to increase ridership on the city's buses, the committee is proposing to make heavily traveled routes more bus- friendly. On Congress Street, only buses would be allowed to make left turns.

Commercial Street would get a whole new look, with dedicated bus lanes to serve pedestrians using the ferries, a trolley line to serve tourists, bike lanes and back-up parking spaces.

Bill Needleman, senior city planner, said back-up parking is much safer for bicycle riders and motorists alike.

But many motorists might not respond well to parking spaces that require more money.

Mary Gilbertson, a Saco resident visiting the Old Port district Tuesday, said she is not sure at what point higher rates would discourage her from parking on Exchange Street when she has her toddler in tow.

''This is much more desirable,'' she said, pointing to the spot that she and her friend had snagged. ''But I don't know how much more desirable.''

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

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